The writing life, of late

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My big story, January 2020 — three months’ reporting, 30 sources.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to Twitter, of all things, my recent writing work has been plentiful, interesting and decently-paid.

I have no explanation for it, certainly in a year of enormous job loss for so many, but this year is proving far better than 2019 for me in steady work income.

I make my living writing journalism, content marketing and coaching other writers ($250/hour) through phone, Skype or, in happier times, face to face in New York City.

Recent work has included producing a series of blog posts, like this one, for the Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest devoted to fighting pancreatic cancer, after its communications officer found me on Twitter and asked if I’d like to do some writing for them.

Another Twitter pal, based in London, recommended me to his editor in (!) Helsinki, which produced this piece, a profile of a corporate executive at a Finnish energy company. I know, sounds snoozy! But she was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the project.

Chasing money is an annoying part of my work, and that’s sucked up a lot of energy as well, with late payments from several sources — some $5,000 worth. No one wants to be a nag or a pest, but the bills don’t wait! Before the crash of 2008, I had a $20,000 line of credit with my bank and that made late payments less stressful — the bank killed it, with no warning or explanation, that year. Managing cash flow is every freelancer’s greatest challenge, since the economy remains tediously predicated on a 1950s model of payment showing up in our bank accounts on a regular, predictable and consistent schedule.

We wish!

I keep trying to add more energy to my book proposal, but reporting is only best done face to face — and that now feels largely impossible. Very frustrating. It’s an idea focused on New York City, so I need to start making calls to see if anyone will even meet with me now.

Awaiting news of a grant application for $11,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts for another book project.

Still reaching out to new-to-me editors I’d like to write for at a few sections of The New York Times, Domino magazine (print) and the Weekend FT.

Also emailed a new content marketing opp — a magazine published for a major car manufacturer — and spoke by phone for 45 minutes with another potential client.

So much of a writer’s work, working for income, is seeking, finding and vetting new would-be collaborators. Do you like them? Are they ethical? Do they pay well? Do they pay quickly? Does the content actually interest me enough to commit to doing it well?

It’s a highly competitive business, but you have to know your value and always be your own best advocate.

I had a long conversation recently with a 26-year old freelance writer who’s fed up, as we all are now, with common (appalling) pay rates of $400 for a reported story — which would easily have paid $1,000 or more a few years ago.

 

Freelance journalism, as she said to me and I’ve said to many, has become an expensive hobby.

 

Which is ironic and terrible, since we need smart, deep analysis now more than ever — and it’s increasingly concentrated in the well-paid hands of a few staff writers. This is not good.

And this looks like it’s not going to change anytime soon.

I easily made two to three times my income in the 90s producing only journalism, as pay rates were much higher and demand as well. Some people, with specialized skills or very strong editorial relationships, are still making very good money, but if you want a glamorous, high profile clip from Conde Nast or Hearst the contract will be brutally demanding of all rights and expose you to total liability.

No thanks!

Content marketing requires the same skills — interviewing, research, reporting, writing, revising. But the end user is different, and the tone can reflect that and, some won’t carry my byline, like the Lustgarten posts.

As long as the pay is good and quick, management smart and the work interesting, that’s a lot!

 

It’s just paper and words

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.

None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.

No travel.

A good long time to reflect.

And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.

I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.

It’s not Art or Literature.

It’s just journalism.

I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.

But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?

I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?

Did it help anyone?

How?

I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.

But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.

The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!

 

We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.

We love finding and telling stories to strangers.

We see story ideas everywhere.

We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.